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Holy Redeemer, New York City
Worshipper: Acton Bell.
The church: Most
Holy Redeemer, New York City.
of New York.
The building: It
was erected in 1851 by priests of the Congregation of the Most
Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorist Fathers, whose
mission was to minister to German immigrants throughout the
world. An enormous church, it has often been called "the
German Catholic cathedral." Originally built in the ornate
German Baroque style, with a 250 foot tower containing 15 bells
(said to be the first bells in the world to be rung by means
of electric switches), it was by far the largest building in
the area. The exterior was stripped of its ornament and the
tower was shortened in 1911, bringing it more in line with the
popular neo-Gothic style. The interior, however, was left untouched.
It is a veritable riot of decoration, with marble everywhere,
even marble wainscoting, and plaster decorative work, although
much of that is in pretty bad shape now. There are eight small
side chapels, one of which is a reliquary chapel holding the
earthly remains of St Datian (one of only three saints whose
whole bodies repose in the United States). In addition, the
chapel holds relics of Jesus' manger, the pillar at which he
was scourged, the True Cross, the girdle of the Virgin Mary,
the mantle of St Joseph, and other relics of St Ann, St Lazarus,
St John the Baptist, and St Anthony of Padua, all under a stained-glass
The church: There
is no website and no bulletin was passed out, so I'm not in
a position to write about what the church as a community has
to offer. Let me instead say a few words about St Datian, who
was the jailer and torturer of St Vincent of Sarragasso, martyred
in 304 for refusing to throw pages of scripture into the fire.
As Datian roasted Vincent on a gridiron over hot coals (or was
that St Laurence?), a beam of light suddenly blew the doors
of his cell open and angels attended Vincent as he died
whereupon Datian immediately embraced the Faith.
The neighborhood: The
church is located on East Third Street between Avenues A and
B, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Anti-German sentiment in
the war years has largely erased German immigrant history, so
many people don't realize that the East Village was once very
wealthy and almost exclusively German (both Protestant and Catholic).
This was the most important church in "Kleindeutschland",
and its grandeur is a testament to the wealth and importance
of the community, which rivaled the Irish in size. But as the
Germans moved away over time, the neighborhood first became
a working-class enclave of Poles and Ukrainians, and later a
Puerto Rican slum and a haven for artists and musicians, including
many poets of the Beat Generation. Gentrification at the millennium,
however, has displaced the poor and the hip, and now Alphabet
Town, as the lettered avenues are called, is one of the most
"in" and trendy areas of the city.
The cast: I'm
not really sure, since it wasn't announced.
The date & time: Sunday,
September 25, 2011, 12.00pm.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Mass in English.
How full was the building?
There were about 200 in the congregation, but the church can
comfortably hold many, many, many more. It was a surprisingly
diverse crowd: I noticed an old Puerto Rican lady sitting next
to an Asian couple, who were sitting in front of an obviously
gay couple, and a yuppie family with four kids.
Did anyone welcome you
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. It was a pretty standard pew with kneeler.
How would you describe the pre-service
I arrived at the end of the Spanish service, which was being
celebrated by a bishop from Honduras, and it was a pretty lively
affair. Things didn't really settle down until noon, and the
mass started about 15 minutes later.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Thank you for coming!"
What books did the congregation use during the
Celebremos!, a Spanish/English missal, and Gather!,
an English hymnal found in many Catholic churches.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and a cantor. The church's organ, a grand instrument by
the Fenton Organ Company of Nyack, New York, has (alas) been
silent for over 30 years.
Did anything distract
The building has so much going on its hard not to have sensory
overload. The quartet of frescoes that frame the altar depict
scenes from the life of Mary, which I thought a little unusual,
and the stained glass throughout was pretty amazing. I'm also
guessing that they need a new roof. There was a section of wall
that was missing plaster. Many of the side chapels had flaking
plaster on the floor and there were several bald patches on
the ceiling. I found myself wandering off on the disrepair.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Novus ordo with a twist, I think. Someone had obviously
thought about liturgy, as the setting seemed original, like
something you'd hear currently on Broadway. It was really interesting.
But I had a real beef with Celebremos!, as the gospel
reading was cut to the point where it made no sense. Communion
was distributed under both kinds, something I've never seen
in any other Roman Catholic church in the city.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 The priest tended to shout, which was pretty loud when
he was amplified. But he kept walking away from the microphone
in the pulpit, and then, even when shouting, he couldn't really
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
In a nutshell, I guess it would be "Read, Ponder, and Pray".
The sermon ostensibly started out as an explication of the day's
gospel reading, Matthew 21:23-32 (the authority of Jesus is
questioned). He began by explaining that Jesus was not calling
the chief priests and elders out for their hypocrisy, but was
instead charging them with a failure to "read, ponder,
and pray", a phrase he then repeated dozens of times. Then
he brought out a giant picture of Padre Pio, spending some time
pointing out his stigmata, and used him as an example of someone
who was able to read, ponder and pray. Next he brought up the
exemplary life of the Venerable Solanus Casey, an American Capuchin
priest currently in the beatification process, as someone humble,
i.e. just like us, who was also able to read, ponder and pray.
Which part of the service was like being in
The mass setting was rather interesting and certainly far more
compelling than what is ordinarily on offer. And the windows
it was noon on a bright, sunny day seemed particularly
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Hmmm... it's not every day that I get Padre Pio's stigmata pointed out to me in such graphic detail.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a chance. The music director gave a very charming speech
at the end of mass detailing plans to start a choir, and he
asked those interested to contact him. But after that there
was a mad rush for the door.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 Its a little far from home, and I'm not sure I could handle a sermon like that every week.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The unexpected diversity in the congregation.
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